Despite fewer employers placing an age limit on candidates, AHRI research has revealed that negative attitudes toward older workers are still discouraging some employers from taking advantage of the skills and experience this cohort offers.
While some progress has been made in reducing ageism in recruitment, some employers are still reluctant to employ older workers, suggests a recent report from the Australian HR Institute (AHRI).
AHRI’s 2023 Employing and Retaining Older Workers Survey, conducted in partnership with the Australian Human Rights Commission, found that only a quarter of the nearly 300 HR professionals surveyed were open to hiring people aged 65 and above “to a large extent”.
AHRI’s CEO Sarah McCann-Bartlett says some employers are doing themselves a disservice by not considering older workers, particularly at a time when Australia is experiencing critical skills shortages and historically high numbers of job vacancies.
“ABS data shows there were 439,000 vacancies in February 2023, which is almost double the vacancies pre-pandemic,” says McCann-Bartlett.
“Employment of older workers could help ease these shortages, as there are many workplaces where older workers are not being utilised to their full potential.
“Not only can older workers help to fill these critical gaps to the benefit of the economy, they also add an immense amount of value to organisations in terms of lived experience, skills and age diversity they can bring to the workforce.”
However, all of this isn’t to say that progress hasn’t been made. The amount of employers who would place an age limit on candidates has dropped from 52 per cent in 2014 and 27 per cent in 2021, to just 18 per cent in 2023.
Ageism in recruitment
In late 2022, research by KPMG indicated that older workers are becoming increasingly inclined to enter the workforce, both for financial and social reasons.
Its analysis found that almost one in four (38 per cent) of the 491,000 workers who joined the workforce between October 2019 and October 2022 were over 55. Researchers pointed to these figures as evidence that Australia is undergoing a Great Unretirement, a trend that has been identified internationally in recent years.
However, although increasing numbers of older workers are rejoining the workforce, AHRI’s findings show that employers are not taking advantage of this trend to address their talent gaps.
It’s not just the over 65s who are being excluded from the workforce. While almost two thirds (65 per cent) of HR professionals surveyed said they were currently experiencing recruitment difficulties, only 56 per cent said that they were open to recruiting people aged between 50 and 64 to a large extent. And only 25 per cent were open to hiring those aged 65 and over.
“Employers who lead by example and embrace age diversity will reap the rewards in terms of productivity, innovation, problem solving and workforce stability.” – The Hon Dr Kay Patterson AO, Australian Human Rights Commission’s Age Discrimination Commissioner
Even for employers who were willing to consider older candidates, ageist practices embedded into recruitment processes held many of them back from reaching this cohort.
Almost half (49 per cent) of HR professionals said that the recruitment practices at their organisation negatively impacted older workers.
There was also little indication from survey respondents that HR was proactively targeting older workers. Only 12 per cent of HR professionals said they proactively recruited older workers into a range of positions, while just five per cent used mature-age-specific job boards to advertise vacancies.
A gap between perceptions and reality
Although some HR professionals expressed a reluctance to recruit older workers, the majority of respondents reported no difference between younger and older workers in terms of job performance and concentration.
“Even though most of the respondents told us they felt there was no difference between employing older or younger workers, many still showed biases against hiring them,” says McCann-Bartlett.
However, among those respondents who did perceive a difference, a greater proportion said older workers performed better across certain criteria. For example, 69 per cent said younger workers and older workers performed equally well in relation to job performance, but over a quarter (27 per cent) ranked the job performance of older workers higher, compared with just five per cent who believe that younger workers perform better.
In particular, older workers were perceived to have better attendance records, a greater ability to cope with stress and were more loyal to their employer.
Meanwhile, younger workers were considered more energetic, adaptable to change, ambitious, physically capable and proficient in using technology.
“This contradiction leads to lost opportunities all round,” said The Hon Dr Kay Patterson AO, Australian Human Rights Commission’s Age Discrimination Commissioner.
“It means employers lose access to a ready-made talent pool, and older people who are willing to work lose the chance to contribute their talents to the workforce, life satisfaction and financial security.
“Many older workers can offer the knowledge, skills, and wisdom that businesses are currently seeking. Employers just need to shift their perspective, trust the data and stop buying into myths about older workers.”
“There are many workplaces where older workers are not being utilised to their full potential.” – Sarah McCann-Bartlett, AHRI’s CEO
How have attitudes to older workers changed?
Interestingly, the age at which HR professionals classified someone as an ‘older worker’ has increased since the last survey was conducted in 2021.
Over a third (36 per cent) of HR professionals believed that employees aged between 61 and 65 could be considered an ‘older’ worker. Only 14 per cent believed that an older worker is aged 50-55; down from 25 per cent in 2021 and 37 per cent in 2014.
“While inconclusive, this could mean the perception of older workers is starting to stabilise post-pandemic to refer largely to the post-60s age brackets,” says Patterson.
There were also some positive signs in the research that organisations are responding more to the needs of older workers. The share of respondents who say their workplace offers flexible working arrangements has hit a record high (63 per cent) compared with previous reports.
“Diversity is good for business – and that includes age diversity,” says Patterson “This means the smart employers are providing workplace cultures which are attractive to employees of all ages, including the rapidly increasing number of workers who are 55+ years of age.
“Employers who lead by example and embrace age diversity will reap the rewards in terms of productivity, innovation, problem-solving and workforce stability.”
When we talk about building diverse workforces, we must not forget age diversity, says McCann-Bartlett.
“Employees aged 55 and above account for one fifth of our workforce, but only four per cent of employment growth in the 12 months to February this year. We cannot discount the skills and value of one fifth of our working population.”
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